No Fruits and Vegetables?

A new study by Essentia Health shows rural populations lag behind their urban counterparts when it comes to getting the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables.

A basket of vegetables and fruits.

A basket of vegetables and fruits.

Karin Hildebrand/

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Even though they live closer to where the fruits and vegetables are grown, rural folks aren’t eating as much produce as people who live in the city. That’s one surprising finding from new research conducted by the Essentia Institute of Rural Health (EIRH).

The study showed that among the states growing the most fruits and vegetables, Hawaii is the only one where rural residents eat more produce than urban residents. The reason often comes down to cost, explains Nawal Lutfiyya, a senior research scientist and chronic disease epidemiologist at the EIRH. As the study’s lead author, she compared consumption of fruits and vegetables among groups of adult Americans using data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You could be a rural person living next to a huge farm that produces fruits and vegetables and not have the means to buy them, so people in the city, who are farther removed from the source, tend to be the more likely consumers,” Lutfiyya says. “That really brings up issues of access and cost.”

The study also produced a worrisome finding when it comes to parents acting as good role models for their children’s eating habits.

“One thing my co-authors and I are concerned about is that rural adults living in households with children are less likely to consume fruits and vegetables than adults without kids,” Lutfiyya says. “Adequate fruit and vegetable consumption reduces the risk for a number of diseases and early death. Our hope is that identifying groups that are at risk can lead to better targeted public health interventions.”

Researchers also learned that women are more likely to eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables than men, and married folks consume more than singles. Fruit and veggie eaters are generally better educated and more economically stable than those who skip the produce aisle.

One finding that didn’t surprise researchers: People getting at least moderate physical activity were also more likely to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day, as were people with a lower body mass index.

Lutfiyya says she hopes this research will provide valuable insight to rural doctors. “If primary care providers know this could be an issue in the rural adult population, they can encourage their patients to consume more fruits and vegetables,” she says.

This study ties into the mission of the Essentia Institute of Rural Health, based in Duluth, Minnesota. The EIRH aims to improve the health of rural areas through comprehensive research and education. The Institute is part of Essentia Health, a large, non-profit health system serving primarily rural residents in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Idaho.